Sun | Jan 19, 2020

Orville Taylor | Filthy legal lucre?

Published:Sunday | December 15, 2019 | 12:46 AM

My family was so poor, that when my rich uncle died, he owed money to the church mouse. Call it being Christian or idealistic, but there is a hidden logic in the admonition in I Timothy 6:10, “For the love of money is the root of all evil”.

Now, don’t be mistaken, money is important, and I often joke that it is ranked third behind oxygen and water. Yet, never have I been able to resile from Jesus’ warning that one of the best vaccines to prevent any sinner from entering into heaven is to be rich.

It is not such a far-fetched idea, because the generation and accumulation of surpluses come at a high moral cost. Either you are paying for something less than it is worth or you are charging more than something is valued. To achieve the balance, where you are building wealth while obeying the rules and laws, treating customers and workers humanely, is a task so difficult, that the comparable passage through the needle eye is a cinch if not a tight clinch.

Yet, if we want a healthy and peaceful society, there should be no second-guessing how we earn our money. Researchers and academics like me, who portend to peddle truth, have to do all kinds of somersaults in order to present findings which are accurate and unbiased. Indeed, like politicians, we have to declare conflicts of interest and reveal our sources of funding.

Like any conscientious follower of the omnibus Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA), we have to make sure not a single drop of tainted money leaks into our coffers. As a matter of fact, my cash-strapped department had to grudgingly walk away from a research project, whose budget was so heavy that I would’ve ended up with a hernia, or ‘boasen’ in Jamaican language, from the earnings. Even if the money comes from a government grant; we must declare it and ensure that it is not influencing the results.

Under POCA, most attorneys that I know cross their eyes and dot their Ts to ensure that they are not laundering money. It is an arduous task, and they are not protected under some shady notion of client-lawyer privilege. Attorneys have a duty to be reasonably certain that the money that they are handling for their clients is not ‘filthy lucre’. This is no joke! If a lawyer wishes to avoid criminal prosecution, he must not bend over backward for his dishonest client and become a lubricated conduit for dirty money to slip through the back door into the general economy.

From a sociological perspective, dirty money destroys the very fabric of society. Distorting the system of values, it makes a mockery of the good lessons our parents taught us and allows cheats to succeed. It is no different from when a juiced-up athlete wins a gold medal. Worse, when he gets away with it and it is because of some technicality but everyone knows.

Just as contraband and other uncustomed goods skew the price of goods and services, and imperil legitimate merchants and purchasers, there is nothing good about ‘blood money’ leaching into the formal economy. Nothing!

Interestingly, despite the ethics of the profession, which clearly dictate that lawyers must not personally be involved in anything dishonest, including lying to the court and saying, “my client did not do that, your honour!” there is little if any vigilance regarding the source of their fees. Any attorney who is interested in maintaining a lawful and low-crime society must be heedful that none of the money he handles carries the mark of the beast. After all, which is the bigger crime: to pass around the dirty cup for another to drink or to drink of the cup oneself?

CALL IT FOR WHAT IT IS

Plotting this same vein, an exasperated Minister of National Security, Dr Horace Chang, took no brief for lawyers and dropped jaws with a bold comment last week. According to Chang, criminals on the loose increase their predatory activities in order to garner funds for legal fees for their cronies in custody.

Doubtless, he would have earned the ire of the legal fraternity, including some of my ‘bestest’ of friends.

There is a report a month ago in the same case I discussed last week, where my good friend was defence counsel.

One crown witness, a convicted felon himself, testified that dirty money from his gang’s criminal enterprise was used for a range of things, including attorney fees.

An attorney herself, and clearly swayed by the objections of the senior lawyer, “The witness’ statement is bringing the legal profession into disrepute,” the judge ordered that the jury disregard the comment.

Yeah, right, apparently they know more behavioural science than we do? People cannot ‘unhear’ what they hear or ‘unremember’ what they remember.

Let’s not play the ass, despite what Denning calls the law. If a person has no discernible means of funding a house purchase, he does not have any legitimate means to pay an attorney. Argument done!

Furthermore, it is a bankrupt argument that every man has the right to counsel and the attorney of his choice. Duh! One can always find a speaker for any function, but if you want a name-brand, well-sought-after wordsmith, you must be able to pay.

Our legal aid system is robust and decently funded. Thus, if you cannot afford the Benz, Lexus, or BMW lawyers, then an Axio or Probox drives on the same road and is just as much a car.

Only drug offences are exempt from legal-aid support, and, in my considered opinion, given the presumption of innocence, the action of Government is discriminatory here and I am surprised that justice-seeking lawyers have not interrogated the unconstitutionality of this prejudicial situation.

Which honest attorney would wish to argue that the lesser evil is to have a person use dirty money to pay him rather than him have access to legal aid?

A spade is not a shovel; let’s call it for what it is.

- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of ‘Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets’. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.